Do people who experience trauma have problems with their memory? It seems as if many people who talk about experiences they have endured cannot offer detail about the events that transpired. Why is it that it seems like people who have PTSD have the worst memories?
What were you doing three Sundays ago at 8:15 PM? Don’t look at your calendar, just take a second to think. It’s likely that you can’t remember every detail. But let’s just say something really exciting happened. At 8:15, maybe you were down on one knee proposing to the love of your life and can remember every detail from the curtains to the way the lasagna on the table smelled. If this is the case for big events, why does it seem like people who have experienced trauma can’t remember specific details?
About Your Memory
Not everyone who experiences trauma will have problems remembering their incidence. However, if the event affected the individual enough to make them develop PTSD, they may have some problems remembering what happened. They may remember really odd details like a cup off of a coaster or that the clock was broken, but they may not be able to remember who was there or how it all came into fruition. This concept is easier to comprehend when you know a little bit about the memory.
Types Of Memory
There are four different types of memory that are separated into two categories. The first being explicit memory which involved semantic and episodic memory. The second category is implicit memory which includes emotional and procedural memory.
I’ll go over the different types of memories with an example of a traumatic event. In this event, someone has experienced a fire that has burned down their home, and they barely made it out alive.
This is the memory of general knowledge and facts. You would remember that the fire was hot and it started in the living room. The clock read 7:00 and you were wearing your pajamas. All of these things are facts and aren’t tied to any emotions felt at the time of the incident.
This is the autobiographical memory of the experience answering the questions of who what and where. You remember the fireman who saved you from the fallen ceiling beam. You remember being taken to the hospital a town over and that your childhood home was burning down to the ground as you sped off in the ambulance. These memories are specific to you and your viewpoint. This is normally remembered in order, but our imperfect memories can rearrange these events.
Your emotional memory is remembering how you felt during the event. You remember being confused that the smoke detector was going off. You remember the shock you felt as you came downstairs and saw the flames licking at the curtains. You remember how devastatingly terrified you were when the ceiling beam fell onto you. You remember the relief you felt when the firemen busted down the door.
This is the memory that helps you know how to perform a commonly done task without having to think about it actively. Things like how to light a match, how to go down the stairs, and how to call 911 when you start smelling smoke.
Trauma And Your Brain
Now that we know a little bit about memory and what each of the different types of memories do for us, we can learn how trauma comes in and messes it all up. Each of these types of memories are controlled by different regions of the brain and studies have shown that PTSD causes changes to these areas creating memory and behavioral issues.
Trauma And Semantic Memory
So if something happened to someone, why can’t they get all of their facts straight? They must be lying! Of course, this is a possibility. But there is a reason that people who come back from overseas or experience assault don’t have all of their facts together. Two reasons actually, the temporal lobe and the inferior parietal cortex.
Trauma can make certain parts of your memory like words or images not combine to make a cohesive semantic memory. The temporal lobe and inferior parietal cortex collect information from different regions of the brain to create these factual memories, but there might be a miscommunication in people with PTSD.
Studies have shown that PTSD has an impact on communication between the temporal and parietal regions of the brain. Even when the patients were in remission, the miscommunication was still occurring. With people who have experienced trauma and developed PTSD, their brain isn’t keeping their unemotional facts straight.
Trauma And Episodic Memory
Trauma can shut down this type of memory as well as how the sequence of events is perceived. Someone who experiences trauma and develops PTSD may say that they went to get food after the hospital and then in another instance say that after the hospital they went straight to the motel and got back out to go eat. The hippocampus is to blame for events being spun in a blender.
Your hippocampus helps to store and retrieve your memories and also plays a role in the ability to overcome the fear response. This is because the amygdala sends messages to this region of the brain, but I’ll get into that part later.
Studies have shown that constant stress may damage the hippocampus because of the hormone called cortisol that is released. This chemical is great because it helps to mobilize your body during a time where you are threatened, but at high levels, this chemical can damage or destroy cells in the hippocampus.
An interesting note is that scientists believe that a smaller hippocampus may predict your vulnerability to developing PTSD after experiencing trauma. This may be due to its inability to control your response to fear when the amygdala sends its signals.
Trauma And Emotional Memory
You know how people joke about being triggered? And how annoyed people are by trigger warnings? Well hey, guess what, triggers are a real thing. Trauma can make a person start to feel a painful emotion without any context; It can be like having a panic attack after you hear your fire alarm beep because it makes you remember the sheer terror you felt trapped under a ceiling beam. And we can thank our amygdala for that.
Your amygdala is what is in control of your fear response. It is what creates the fight or flight response you get whenever there is a threat nearby. A tiger running at you? Your amygdala elevates chemicals like cortisol to help pump blood into your muscles so you can run as fast as you can for safety. People who have experienced trauma, their amygdala sees tigers everywhere.
Your subconscious never forgets the events that transpired, which is why your amygdala is always on guard. “Never again,” it thinks as it gives you anxiety while you cook an omelet constantly imagining flames growing from the pan.
Trauma And Procedural Memory
Trauma can even change the patterns of procedural memory. Someone who experiences trauma may form new habits when they do things that once were a breeze like cooking over a hot stove after your house just burned down. Sure, you know to turn it on but you can’t help but feel that every muscle in your body is tense like it isn’t sure what to do. This happens because of the striatum.
The striatum is what forms habits. It helps to control the reward center and motor functions in your brain. Studies have shown us that people who have PTSD have hyperactivity between the hippocampus and the striatum and the activity is very difficult to reduce.
This overactivity can lead to habit-like responses towards memories that involve the event that caused the trauma. Like flinching every time you hear a beep because it reminds you of a fire alarm. Scientists believe that this makes sense because of the behavioral manifestations that are related to patients who developed PTSD from combat.
They Don’t Remember, But They Do
Like I said before, your subconscious remembers everything. This is why the primitive aspects stay with us while the words do not. The heart palpitations are there, but the exact order of events may be fuzzy. This isn’t because anyone who has experienced trauma wants to lie or has ill will, it is just that their brain is damaged from the excessive stress they have experienced.
The memory issues don’t stop here. Even after the event, people who have PTSD can have a difficult time remembering things that are unrelated like appointment dates, where they set their keys and the name of the waiter. This makes it troubling for people in school or work to go about their daily lives. Many people who have experienced trauma can become successful and happy; it just takes more work for them because their brain is a bit behind.
Can CBD Help?
CBD oil has shown in studies to help the damage that occurs in the hippocampus and reduce the activity of the amygdala. Research suggests that it may be able to help patients with PTSD with their memory issues. It may also help with the anxiety, anger, confusion, and depression that comes along with this disorder.